Who knew that journalists would ever need instant-replay technology in order to cover what is, and what is not, taking place during pre-game performances of the national anthem?
I don't watch much National Football League action these days, not because I've cut the cable TV cord or because I am involved in some kind of boycott. No, I'm an ex-Baltimore guy who no longer gets to watch his team (no way I'm buying an NFL cable package). I do watch the Tennessee Titans, and that's pretty much that.
However, I have been tuning in some of the games long enough to follow the protests. I have noticed something that I think is interesting, something that might be of interest to sports journalists (and even religion-beat reporters). There might be a news angle here.
What? Some of the players' lips are moving. Yes, some are singing along to the national anthem. But others are clearly saying things and not to each other. Some of these players are kneeling. Some of them are standing.
Trigger warning to paranoid NFL officials: These players may be praying.
For example, take a close look at the video at the top of this post. Please watch the whole thing.
What do you see? Well, there are Ravens players with their hands lifted. In some religious traditions, especially among charismatic or Pentecostal Christians, this is a symbol of prayer. But let's play special attention to retired linebacker Ray Lewis, who is -- to say the least -- an outspoken Christian and social activist.
Early in the video, Lewis is shown kneeling -- on one knee -- with other Ravens players. However, pay close attention a minute and a half (1:25) into the video. Lewis is now on both knees and, read his lips, it is pretty clear that he is praying.
So, has Lewis joined the Black Lives Matter protest against police violence or not?
This is a crucial, and newsworthy, issue. You can see this in the Sports Illustrated report that ran with this headline: "Added Security Posted Near Ray Lewis Statue After Lewis Kneels for Anthem." The key: It is stated as fact that Lewis took part in the protest by players.
In an amazing -- in terms of its religious content -- segment of the Showtime "Inside the NFL" program, Lewis was offered a chance to explain his actions. The Baltimore Sun, to its credit, reported what the future Hall of Fame player had to say and even provided (sports news is really important in Charm City) a transcript.
Pay close attention to the facts this time around, thinking back to the video footage:
On Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” ... former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis explained why he dropped to both knees and interlocked arms with wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker C.J. Mosley during the U.S. national anthem in London on Sunday.
“I didn’t drop on one knee in order to protest. … I dropped on two knees -- both knees -- so I can simply honor God in the midst of chaos,” Lewis said on the show.
When asked why his mouth was moving during the national anthem, he said he was praying. “I have First Amendment rights -- myself. We got people standing. We got people bowing. We got people don’t even want to respect the flag. If we want to make it right, make it two ways. You can only stand or pray. Haven’t I done that …”
Now, there are lots of other angles to explore here. Lewis had, in the past, used social media to urge Colin Kaepernick to "let your play speak for itself." Then there was the matter of former teammate Shannon Sharpe openly criticizing Lewis for taking a knee, or knees. In addition to all of that, there was the incident in which Kaepernick's girlfriend posted disparaging (some would say racist) remarks about Lewis and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.
So what's the point? In the past, the NFL has struggled to know how to deal with the fact that many players choose to pray with each other before and even after games. Television viewers used to catch glimpses of these frequent post-game prayer circles, with a mix of players from both teams praying together. But in recent years -- some say at the insistence of NFL leaders -- they are no longer shown.
By the way, in the past, Kaepernick has been a prayer circle participant.
In that context, read this section of the "Inside the NFL" transcript:
[James] Brown: Ray, I’m asking you a very obvious question. So you’re pained to the core that people would question your character and integrity and commitment to this?
Lewis: You can never question it. Boomer, we pray before we come out of the locker room, true or false?
Boomer Esiason: True.
Lewis: Phil, we pray before we come out of the locker room.
Phil Simms: True.
Lewis: So why not pray in full stadiums?
Brown: And that’s what the two knees represent?
Lewis: That’s what the two knees represent.
The bottom line: In the tense context of the current NFL, prayer maybe be news in and of itself. It would certainly be news if some players have chosen to offer prayers instead of, or as a part of, protests about urban violence.
So is it time to do instant replays of the national anthem and then ask follow-up questions?
FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from video coverage of London game.